Nearly three times more people have died from COVID-19, as official data show, according to a new report from the World Health Organization (WHO), the most comprehensive view of the real global picture of the pandemic so far.
There have been 14.9 million COVID-19-related fatalities by the end of 2021, the UN agency said on Thursday.
The official number of fatalities directly attributable to COVID-19 reported to the WHO during that period, from January 2020 to the end of December 2021, totals a little over 5.4 million.
WHO over-mortality numbers reflect those who died of COVID-19 as well as those who died indirectly as a result of the outbreak, including people who could not access care for other health issues when systems were overwhelmed with massive waves of infection.
It also takes into account fatalities averted during the pandemic, for example, due to the reduced risk of road accidents during lockdowns.
But the numbers are also much higher than the official count because of deaths that have been left out in countries without proper reporting. Even before the pandemic, about six out of ten deaths worldwide were unregistered, according to the WHO.
According to the WHO report, nearly half of the deaths that had not yet been identified were in India. The report indicates that 4.7 million people died there as a result of the pandemic, primarily during a huge wave in May and June 2021.
However, the Indian government estimates that the number of deaths from January 2020 to December 2021 is significantly lower, at about 480,000.
WHO said it had not yet looked at all the new data provided this week by India, which has delayed WHO estimates and published its own mortality figures for all causes of death on Tuesday 2020.
In a statement issued after the figures were published, the Indian government said that the WHO had published the report “without adequately responding to India’s concerns” about what it called “dubious” methods.
The WHO panel, consisting of international experts who have been working on the data for months, used a combination of national and local information, along with statistical models, to estimate totals where data are incomplete – a methodology that India criticized.
However, other independent evaluations have also found the number of deaths in India to be much higher than the official government count, including a report published in Science that estimated that 3 million people may have died of COVID in the country.
Other models have also come to similar conclusions about the fact that the number of deaths globally is much higher than the recorded statistics. In comparison, it is estimated that approximately 50 million people died during the 1918 Spanish influenza pandemic, and 36 million people have died from HIV since the outbreak started in the 1980s.
Samira Asma, WHO Assistant Director-General for Data, Analysis, and Delivery for Impact, who co-directed the calculation process, said the data was the ‘public health vital’ to assess and learn from what happened during the pandemic.
She urged increased support for countries to improve reporting.
“We don’t know everything,” she told reporters during a media briefing.